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Dallas Texas

 

For people of my generation Dallas is famous for one thing, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 

As a result of this event the course of my life changed.  Possibly not as much as the time a drunk traveller for a wine company ran into the back of our old Wolseley on the highway outside of Royal North Shore Hospital and wrote it off, yet sufficiently that although I might still have children they would not have been the same children.

Kennedy was killed at the end of 1963, just as I was going to University and I've written about this before.  Read more...

No doubt it's the same for every one of my generation. So the future of the world was entirely changed that day.  For example, would Kennedy have pressed on in Vietnam? 

Days before his own death he'd authorised the killing of the brothers Diem during the CIA sponsored coup in South Vietnam that made General Minh the virtual dictator and the Country began falling into chaos. Ho Chi Minh marked it as the day he won the war. It was not until a year later that we in Australia went 'All the way with LBJ' - the new President Lyndon Baines Johnson. As a result we needed conscription to increase the number of young Australian men who would get killed to keep Vietnam 'free'. 

Along with thousands of young Americans they died for naught. Vietnam still isn't 'free'. Although, as I've reported elsewhere, it's now a pleasant place to spend a holiday, with seemingly happy, healthy and increasingly prosperous people. Read more...

 

Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

(featuring exhibits on John Fitzgerald Kennedy's presidency;  assassination and the site of the sniper's nest)

 

As every one of my generation knows: on 22 November 1963, as Kennedy's motorcade passed by, shots were fired from a sixth floor window of a book depository at Dealey Plaza and Kennedy's head blew apart. 

Lee Harvey Oswald was very quickly caught and identified as the shooter. His mail-order gun was found hidden near the sixth floor window of the book depository where he worked. Around the shooter's window boxes had been moved into a makeshift wall to provide hiding place and a gun rest. 

But before he could say much or be brought to trial he was murdered at point blank, in front of reporters, by Dallas night club owner and sometime mob associate Jack Ruby.  It turned out Ruby had terminal cancer.  To many this seemed suspicious and there have been so many wild conspiracy theories that I soon gave up listening to them. 

There was an official enquiry that concluded that Kennedy was shot twice and Governor Connolly was shot once but Oswald had only managed to get off two shots.  The first 'magic' bullet had hit both men, passing right through Kennedy.  The second, the head shot instantly killed Kennedy. It required rapid reloading and re-aiming of a cheap bolt action gun. It was either amazingly skilled or, given that the first, much easier shot, had hit Kennedy in the shoulder, just extraordinarily 'lucky'.  The testimony of witnesses, their photographs showing police running and the sound track on a home movie, that had recorded several rapid bangs, initially suggested that there had been more than one shooter, possibly from a nearby rise, topped by a wall providing cover, that came to be known as The Grassy Knoll.

The film producer Oliver Stone made a movie in which he explored this evidence, including new evidence about Oswald's possible recruitment, and concluded that there had been a conspiracy.  A second enquiry was held that included a full reconstruction, complete with sound recordings of the echoes produced by gunfire. It again found that Oswald acted alone but unsettlingly, discovered that there had been evidence tampering by someone immediately following the killing.  New (old) papers are about to be released by President Trump that might reveal the culprit but now Trump has reneged on his commitment to release them all.  Why are we not surprised?

At the museum that now occupies the Book Depository you can see a video reconstruction of the presidential limousine coming slowly down the street towards the building. Kennedy is in the back seat of the open car, fully exposed. The screen is below the window adjacent to Oswald's so you can simultaneously see the actual scene.  The most extraordinary thing is that Oswald had a clear and easy shot at Kennedy for almost a minute but didn't fire.  He waited until the car had turned the corner and would soon be out of range.  The final head shot, that hit Kennedy close to the centre of his head, was indeed worthy of a first class marksman using a professional sniper rifle, with full adjustment for wind and exact range.  No wonder everyone who's ever fired a cheap bolt action rifle and looked at this reconstruction gets suspicious, including several men with military experience discussing it the day we were there.

 

Kennedy Assassination
Kennedy Assassination

The Kennedy Assassination - look at the relative size of the cars and people in the street.
A good shot with Oswald's rifle and scope might hit the guy by the near corner in the head
but what about the fellow in the blue shirt adjacent to the second shot? Remember the car was speeding away by then.
To see more detail click on 'Dallas from the JFK Museum' below

 

As the museum itself is keen to point out, Kennedy was not without enemies. In addition to a list of sins published by political enemies during the campaign that appears in the museum, old Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, a very wealthy pillar of Chicago High Society, had an evil reputation for ruthlessness and possible Mafia connections. Kennedy and his brothers were wealthy playboys who didn't stop at handing women back and forth between them.  They, no doubt, had more than one man after them on that ground alone.  And Kennedy himself was happy to sanction assassination. Not only had he approved the killing of the Diem brothers in Vietnam just weeks earlier, but he'd also authorised several attempts on the life of Cuba's Fidel Castro.  Then there was the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that had alienated a lot of Castro's enemies as well.  To that clamping down on the Mafia and forced desegregation in the South can add the Mob and the Ku Klux Klan or one of several other such white supremacist groups to the list.  He'd also recently come to such verbal blows (expletives deleted) over price controls on the Steel industry that it too had led to unhappy investors and death threats.  There's quite a long list.

At the museum we're invited to believe that Oswald was driven by such hatred that he took advantage of a serendipitous opportunity to shoot Kennedy.  By chance he was already an employee at the Book Depositary.  By chance he'd purchased a rifle and scope and suitable ammunition weeks before. By chance there was a convenient empty floor and well placed window with a big pile of boxes to hide his shooting position.  

All this was exceedingly fortuitous because unless Oswald had inside knowledge he couldn't even have known that Kennedy was coming to Dallas, let alone the Presidential schedule, timing and route, that just happened to come past his workplace.  To him it must have seemed amazingly providential.  He couldn't have had more than a day or two to prepare, during which he had to plan the shooting, build his hide and smuggle in his gun.  So to have hit Kennedy in the head and killed him with his hurried, longer range, second shot must have seemed miraculous. 

At the time the Russian secret service, the KGB, had similar doubts and reported to Moscow that LBJ had ordered Kennedy's killing and that Oswald who, as it turns out they knew quite well, was a patsy, duped into covering for the real marksman somewhere else.

Given the strange delay in Oswald opening fire, that I noticed first hand, combined with just too many coincidences, then considering motive, means and opportunity, I'm starting to think that's a conspiracy theory with legs.  There's certainly a strong smell of fish in that place. But it could be all the red herrings.

 


Dallas from the JFK Museum - Click on this picture to see more
 

 

Whatever the truth may be about the killing, my main concern is that the museum fails to mention Kennedy's many failings.  Andrew Jackson's got an airing at the Hermitage.  In that way this one's like the Elvis Presley museum. As I said there, eulogising a pop star so as to build the legend, and the cash flow, and not to offend his sensitive fans, is one thing but to do it for a president is more problematic. 

Kennedy's marriage is represented as close to ideal.  Marilyn Monroe and his other women get scant mention and no mention is made of Jackie's almost immediate remarriage. No mention is made of his abuse of prescription drugs or even of his disability.  But these are foibles compared to blatantly inventing the 'Missile Gap' in order to win the election, or deploying PGM-19 Jupiter medium range nuclear ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey targeted on Moscow, thereby massively accelerating the 'Cold War'.  Nor is admitted that the 'Cuban Missile Crisis' was resolved by giving Russia what it wanted: the removal of those missiles threatening Moscow.  Although he was hailed as a hero at home that was hollow. It was in no way the victory for Kennedy that is suggested by the museum.  Instead he had, for no sensible reason, taken the world as close to Armageddon as we have ever been. 

Kennedy is most remembered for the second Berlin airlift, after the Wall was built, and the decision to go to the moon.  He made several great speeches in these causes that inspired the world.  Yet his brilliant speech writer, Ted Sorensen, goes uncredited, even though Kennedy himself was more than happy to acknowledge Sorensen as his 'intellectual blood bank'.   And so it goes.  The same thing applies at the Kennedy Memorial at Arlington where Jackie is buried alongside as if she was still his wife. 

I was reminded of the Shakespeare memorial at Stratford that's engraved with his most famous lines.  Did he pen all these himself or was he the entrepreneur who commissioned and owned the plays.  In five hundred years Sorensen will be forgotten and the speeches will be Kennedy's alone.  In this museum it's taken a decade or five.

 

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas is not without culture and has another great art gallery - the Dallas Museum of Art - DMA that has a surprisingly large collection of impressionists in addition to more modern and more traditional European works.  They also have more ancient gold - is it all in Texas?

 


Dallas Museum of Art - DMA - Click on this picture to see more

 

 

George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Another museum to see in Dallas is the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum.  George junior is the son of a previous president and 'entirely on his own merit' became Governor of Texas.  As Governor he managed two ground-breaking achievements:

  • First, he gained praise in 'oil man' circles for being a sort of negative Robin Hood - seeking to privatise social services to the poor and the needy to help pay for Texas' biggest ever tax cuts. 
  • Second, he made Texas a leader among all the 31 states where capital punishment is still legal.  By presiding over the execution of 152, mostly black men, he broke a United States gubernatorial record.  It could even be a world record if it weren't for the superpowers of state sanctioned murder: China; Iran and Saudi Arabia.  But then are their governors empowered to make such a decision?

Normally when visiting another country I try to refrain from commenting on people like governors. But this one went on to be leader of the 'free world' and through the ANZUS alliance thus involved Australia in several of his actions. 

His museum is populated by a team of sycophantic volunteers who are under the impression that 'W' was the greatest President who ever lived.  Certainly not as he appears to me: a simple man who managed, under the influence of others smarter than he, to stuff-up almost everything he touched. 

Consider some of his famous Bushisms.  They seem to be coming from a man who has no in-depth understanding of what he's been told to say:

Education:

"You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.'' —Townsend, Tenn., Feb. 21, 2001

"I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves." —Washington, D.C., Sept. 21, 2003

"I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe — I believe what I believe is right." —Rome, Italy, July 22, 2001


On the economy:

"We need to counter the shockwave of the evildoer by having individual rate cuts accelerated and by thinking about tax rebates." —Washington, D.C. Oct. 4, 2001

"And so I'm for medical liability at the federal level." --George W. Bush, on medical liability reform, Washington, D.C., March 10, 2006

"We need an energy bill that encourages consumption." —Trenton, N.J., Sept. 23, 2002

"Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to what has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate -- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will help on the red." --George W. Bush, explaining his plan to save Social Security, Tampa, Fla., Feb. 4, 2005

"I repeat, personal accounts do not permanently fix the solution." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., March 16, 2005


On international affairs:

"This foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating." —as quoted by the New York Daily News, April 23, 2002

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." —Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004 (Watch video)

"We shouldn't fear a world that is more interacted." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., June 27, 2006

"We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease." —Gothenburg, Sweden, June 14, 2001

"The point now is how do we work together to achieve important goals. And one such goal is a democracy in Germany." --George W. Bush, D.C., May 5, 2006

"The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to terrorize himself." —Grand Rapids, Mich., Jan. 29, 2003

"Do you have blacks, too?" —to Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, Washington, D.C., Nov. 8, 2001


On law and order:

"For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It's just unacceptable. And we're going to do something about it." —Philadelphia, Penn., May 14, 2001
 

So I prefer to believe he's simple, because he seems well-meaning - and the alternative is complicit.

 


The George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum - Father and Son
Click on this picture to see more
 

 

The museum tells us that when elected his first mission, encouraged by his librarian wife, was to do something about the appalling state of literacy in the US.  Contrary to an assertion in the museum, the outcome, as measured by qualified researchers, was that literacy improved not one iota, so we can give him an F in English.  Then he decided the US was spending too much on space exploration and shut down most of NASA.  Other scientific programs got similar treatment. That's an F in Science. 

When the World Trade Centre in New York got hit by aircraft flown by Saudis, funded by a Saudi, he flew his Saudi business associates out of the country when other aircraft were still grounded.  Then he cut back on the war in Afghanistan, where the culprit was probably hiding hosted by Taliban, trained in Pakistan, funded by Saudis. At the same time he was paying Pakistan billions, it was said to stop them using their actual nuclear weapons, he persuaded his allies (or did they persuade him?) to illegally attack distant Iraq, alleging possession of non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction' to justify this.   Then he foolishly claimed to have won that war when it had hardly begun. 

Not content with destabilising the middle east he then sabotaged his father's efforts to reach a rapprochement with North Korea and Iran, to halt their nuclear programs with diplomacy, by calling them members of the Axis of Evil and imposing sanctions that made them redouble their efforts.   

Meanwhile his War on Terror  was about as effective as his father's War on Drugs and could more properly be called the War for Terror as the war in Afghanistan escalated; stability in the Middle East crumbled; and sectarian differences in Iraq led to ISIS and so to many more terrorist incidents around the world. 

It's odd to see W preserved in bronze alongside his father in the museum courtyard as the two men had a notorious falling out over the degree to which W had fallen under the spell of the 'neocons' in the White House.


When it was announced (with amazingly little fanfare) that the pugnaciously anti-Iraq war Democrat Kennedy had been awarded the 2003 George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service, so many jaws dropped all over Washington that usually voluble politicians were only heard swallowing their real thoughts.

Since the current President Bush veered away from the real war against terrorism in Afghanistan and went a'venturing in Iraq, much to his father's dismay, just about everybody close to Washington politics has known of the policy schism between father and son.

It was politically and philosophically obvious. But people around Father Bush, a coterie of traditional internationalist conservatives who protect him like a wolf mother does her cubs, would heatedly deny any family rift -- and nobody spoke publicly about it.

Now it's all out. Father Bush has done it in his own preferred nuanced way -- the way Establishment gentlemen operate -- but he has revealed the depth of his disagreement with his impetuously uninformed son...


The ideological rift between father and son has been growing ever since George W. began focusing on Iraq and, with that obsession, proposed "theories" of unilateralism (America needs room in the world) and pre-emption (kill even your perceived enemy before he kills you).

But while family friends say Father Bush has made his disagreements known to his son, they clearly have not found fertile soil in this White House.

More curious, and in many ways depressing, is the fact that this President Bush has embarked upon a policy designed to counter, or even to wipe out, his father's entire political legacy.

The father lived his life in the service of moderate and intelligent internationalism. His manners were always meticulously courteous, as he wooed even critics overseas to see the American position. He was even-handed in the Middle East and thus brought the area to the verge of peace for the first time in history; he was capable of using force but preferred to do it supported by coalitions of friendly states, thus cementing international cooperation.

The son seems to have made posturing against his father's accomplishments and beliefs his life's work.

W has given way to a radical right that abhors international coalitions and manners; he mocks the world and denies any need for its help. He has led the Middle East to the nadir of its hope and possibilities, and he has led the United States to a moment in history in which we face asymmetric warfare from one end of the globe to another.

And above all, he has replaced his father's courtesy and good graces with an almost proud rudeness and scorn for others.

Why? I'll leave the question of "killing the father" to the psychiatric thinkers. Meanwhile, the tension between these two men reveals itself daily.

Georgie Anne Geyer, Boston Globe 10/18/2003
 

 

We saw an example of this in Korea where George Bush Senior was pictured laying a ceremonial rail tie on the proposed rail line from the South thought the North and on across china and Russia to Europe.  It was a great thawing of North/South tensions. This was almost immediately undone when W came to power naming the North among the Axes of Evil and strengthened US military presence in the South.  The North very legitimately feared invasion. They responded by stepping up their military capability, with the apparent goal of MAD (mutually assured destruction): threatening nuclear retaliation against US mainland cities. Read my remarks on Korea:  Here...  

Then came the Global Financial Crisis.  Many countries road through this as an economic 'bumpy patch' but in the US people were ruined and left their homes with the keys in the letterbox.  Many are still 'underwater'.  The generally recognised culprits walked away unscathed.

Being underwater was not a euphemism for a lot of people in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. But then as a result of Bush's equivocations the aftermath was mismanaged for month upon month. During the recovery negative social indicators like racial tension and school shootings rose sharply.  As we clearly saw, much of the country is still recovering from the Global Financial Crisis.  

But he's a great guy; self-disparaging about his many 'goofs'; with a charming smile; and a wonderful dinner companion. At least I can infer this by the very expensive necklace a Saudi gave to his wife, along with other generous gifts, properly declared and displayed in a showcase in his museum.

 

From Dallas we would fly to that unspellable town: Albuquerque in New Mexico.  So it was time to say goodbye to yet another trusty car.

 

 

 


    Have you read this???     -  this content changes with each opening of a menu item


Travel

Burma (Myanmar)

 

 

This is a fascinating country in all sorts of ways and seems to be most popular with European and Japanese tourists, some Australians of course, but they are everywhere.

Since childhood Burma has been a romantic and exotic place for me.  It was impossible to grow up in the Australia of the 1950’s and not be familiar with that great Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson’s rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s 'On the Road to Mandalay' recorded two decades or so earlier:  

Come you back to Mandalay
Where the old flotilla lay
Can't you hear their paddles chunking
From Rangoon to Mandalay

On the road to Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play
And the Dawn comes up like thunder
out of China 'cross the bay

The song went Worldwide in 1958 when Frank Sinatra covered it with a jazz orchestration, and ‘a Burma girl’ got changed to ‘a Burma broad’; ‘a man’ to ‘a cat’; and ‘temple bells’ to ‘crazy bells’.  

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

The First Man on the Moon

 

 

 

 

At 12.56 pm on 21 July 1969 Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) Neil Armstrong became the first man to step down onto the Moon.  I was at work that day but it was lunchtime.  Workplaces did not generally run to television sets and I initially saw it in 'real time' in a shop window in the city.  

Later that evening I would watch a full replay at my parents' home.  They had a 'big' 26" TV - black and white of course.  I had a new job in Sydney having just abandoned Canberra to get married later that year.  My future in-laws, being of a more academic bent, did not have TV that was still regarded by many as mindless.

Given the early failures, and a few deaths, the decision to televise the event in 'real time' to the international public was taking a risk.  But the whole space program was controversial in the US and sceptics needed to be persuaded.

In Australia we knew it was really happening because Tidbinbilla was tracking the space craft, as it had previous Apollo launches, and the Parkes radio Telescope had been requisitioned to receive the live television signal, so that an estimated 600 million viewers could watch it too.  Nevertheless for a wide range of reasons, ranging from religious orthodoxy and anti-scientific scepticism to dislike of the Kennedys and big government in general, conspiracy theorists in the US and elsewhere continued to claim that it had been faked for decades later.

 

 

The Houston Apollo Control Room - now a National Monument and the Apollo 11 crew
my photos - see Houston on this website:  Read more...

 

The immediate media reaction to Armstrong's: 'one small step for man one giant leap for mankind', statement was a bit unforgiving.  In the heat of the moment, with his heart rate racing; literally stepping into the unknown; Armstrong had fumbled his lines.  He should have said: 'a man'.

As it was the recording, that will now last, as of a seminal moment in history, into the unforeseeable future, is redundant and makes no sense - an added proof, if one were needed, that it wasn't pre-recorded or faked.

I've talked about Kennedy's motivation for the project elsewhere on this website [Read more...] but the outcomes for the entire world turned out to be totally unpredictable and massive.  Initially engineering in the US had not been up to the task and the space program stumbled from one disaster to the next, with the Russians clearly in advance, but now some centralised discipline needed to be imposed - to herd the cats.  Simply using a single standard of weights and measures was a challenge. 

Yet the incredible challenges involved required new technology and an open cheque had been committed.  Billions of dollars funded tens of thousands of research projects that led to many thousands of innovations.  New materials and methods of manufacture were developed.  Perhaps the most important were semiconductor electronics at companies like Fairchild and Bell Labs and computer science at the previously mechanical card sorting and calculating companies: NCR and IBM that had once been sceptical of this newfangled electronic stuff.  Engineering and science educators expanded to provide the young researchers, engineers and programmers.

Unlike the wartime 'Manhattan Project' much of the research was published. Scientific American was required reading among my friends. In any case the speed of innovation rendered advances redundant in a matter of months. Thus quite a bit of this taxpayer funded technology 'fell off the back of the truck' and computer engineering entrepreneurs like Hewlett Packard, who had got their start making sound equipment for Walt Disney, quickly took advantage, soon to be joined by many others. So that today electronics and communications related industry has become the core of the US economy.

Today the computing and communications technology you are using to read this is several millions of times more powerful than that employed to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon and this is indeed a testament to that 'giant leap' that, in part, enabled 'one small step for (a) man' 50 years ago.

 

 

Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life

 

 

What everyone should know

Most of us already know that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as well as other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be very large indeed and come in all shapes and sizes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle molecular shape is often important to an organic molecule's ability to bond to another to form elaborate and sometimes unique molecular structures.

All living things on Earth are comprised of cells and all cells are comprised of numerous molecular structures.

Unlike the 'ancients', most 'moderns' also know that each of us, like almost all animals and all mamals, originated from a single unique cell, an ova, that was contributed by our mother.  This was fertilised by a single unique sperm from our father.

This 'fertilisation' triggered the first cell division. These two cells divided; and divided again and again; through gestation and on to birth childhood. So that by the time we are adults we've become a huge colony of approximately thirty seven thousand billion, variously specialised, cells of which between sixty and a hundred billion die and are replaced every day. Thus the principal function of a cell, over and above its other specialised purposes, is replication. 

As a result, the mass of cells we lose each year, through normal cell division and death, is close to our entire body weight. Some cells last much longer than a year but few last longer than twenty years. So each of us is like a corporation in which every employee and even the general manager has changed, yet the institution goes on largely as before, thanks to a comprehensive list of job descriptions carried by every cell - our genome.

Cell replication is what we call 'life'.  The replicating DNA molecule can therefore be regarded as the 'engine of life' or the 'life force' on Earth.  So it is quite a good thing to understand. 

 


What makes us human?

Different animals and plants have different numbers of genes and chromosomes that together make up their genome.  Many are far more complex than humans.  The 32 thousand  human genes are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each of our cells.  But the protein-coding genes, that differentiate us, form only a fraction (about 1.5%) of the instruction and memory data that is stored in DNA. The remainder, coding for other aspects of cell chemistry, seems to be administrative overhead.

When human girls are born, they have about a million eggs in each of their two ovaries, nestled in fluid-filled cavities called follicles. But this number declines quite rapidly so that it is depleted by the time of menopause (usually before 50 years of age). Unless fertility treatment is in use, just one or sometimes two of these (apparently randomly selected) ova descends from the ovaries each menstrual period - down the woman's fallopian tubes where it (or they) may become fertilised if the woman has recently engaged in coitus (had 'sex').

As in vitro fertilization (IVF) demonstrates every day; we now understand that a unique version of your father's genome was injected into your mother's egg by just one of his millions of spermatozoa. So that when the two genomes merged a doubly unique cell, that became you, was the result.

Our genes, that are encoded in their DNA, come in equal proportion from both parents.  Unless we have an identical twin, resulting from division of the zygote (see below) after fertilisation, each of us is genetically unique; our genetic identity determined by that successful fertilisation. 

 

 


Human Reproduction - Click here to Expand

 

Within our species we are said to be of Caucasian or Asian or African appearance, to have dark or fair complexion and so on, and possibly to bear a ‘family resemblance’.  These traits are due to the particular gene variants we have inherited from our parents.

These have been passed down to us, with regular variations, from parent to child, and through many ancestor species, since life began on the planet. And all plants and animals on Earth belong to a single family because we all inherit the same system of reproduction from one original replicating cell, our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

 


Replication

The DNA molecular structure resembles a zip fastener, where each tooth can be any of four molecular bases.  The bases G-C and A-T are each small organic molecules that at one point are covalently bound to a triphosphate (containing three phosphorous atoms) and a sugar group that binds them in a ribbon.  At their free end Guanine is attracted to Cytosine, with triple hydrogen bonds, and Adenine is attracted to Thymine, with double hydrogen bonds. 

In the following notation: black = Carbon;  blue = Nitrogen;  red = Oxygen; white = Hydrogen.   Bars joining them indicate a covalent bond, an electron shared between the atoms.  A double bar indicates two shared electrons.   

 

  Cytosine (C4H5N3O) has a shape that attracts (fits)   Guanine (C5H5N5O) 


but not  Thymine (C5H6N2O2)  or   Adenine (C5H5N5), that attract (fit) each other.

 

Each of these bases is bound to a ribbon of  sugar molecules and at its other end lightly bonds to a matching base on the other half of the 'zipper' such that when it is 'unzipped' each attracts its opposite number (like magnets attracting the opposite pole) thus recreating a new matching half in the same sequence.

 


DNA replication. 

 

This unzipping and reforming is called self-replication. It is going on continuously in all living things as new cells are created to replace those that die. In an adult human around three quarters of a million of our cells divide every second.  This cell division is the process we call organic life and may continue (usually briefly) after we are legally (brain) dead.

Other chemical mechanisms within the cell translate the genetic information stored in the DNA sequence to manufacture the proteins from which new cells are built and differentiate themselves, organising to become our various organs and to thus arrange themselves to form a human; and not a gorilla or a crocodile or a kola or a rose or a cabbage. The human genome project had now identified 32,185 human genes.

Accurate reproduction is very important to the viability of an organism.  Just as: 'WOLF' does not have the same meaning as 'FOWL' the location and order of sequence G-A-T-C within a particular DNA string (chromosome) will result in a different outcome to the sequence C-A-G-T .   And this difference will influence cell structure and purpose:   'The wolf eats the fowl' has a totally different meaning to: 'The fowl eats the wolf'.

This method of storing and reproducing instructions and data is twice as efficient as the binary method we presently use in electronic devices.  For example the binary processor in your computer or reading device requires each character in in each word in this sentence to be encoded in two bytes (each of 8 characters or bits).  In other words 16 ones and zeros are required for every character on this page (eg 'a' = 0000000001100001) and a similar number for each pixel in a simple colour image.  But DNA can encode the same information (sufficient for every unique character and symbol in every language in the world) in just eight characters.

There are a fraction over 3 billion characters in the human genome (3,079,843,747 base pairs).  In computer terms this is equivalent to about three quarters of a gigabyte of information storage. The same data is stored in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This is in nuclear DNA, before taking into account separate, but smaller, storage in each of the mitochondria (see below). 

A 'gig' isn't much you might say (less than $1's worth) but the actual data storage density is in excess of anything offered by our present electronic technology.  Cells are a lot smaller than the chip in a memory stick - there around a billion cells per cubic centimetre in hard tissue.

This also points to another reality.  Had not this replication chemistry been available, and the conditions for the reactions been just right, life could not have occurred in its earthly form. 

Life relying on another replication method that was say binary would be at a disadvantage and would have to use different replication mechanisms.  If there was a chemistry, at different temperatures and chemical concentrations, allowing say six base pairs it would be different again.  We and our cousins (the other animals, plants and other organisms) that are all descended from the original replicating cell (LUCA - see above) are here because the conditions on Earth were and are just right for our kind of life to prosper.

Elsewhere in the universe it may be different.

 


Gene Mapping

Genes are just patterns of chemical molecules that are held within the replicating DNA mechanism.  The way they are encoded onto DNA can be likened to any other mechanism for copying and recording data: a DVD or even a vinyl record or the memory in this computer.  As a result they can be altered or damaged from time to time and some of these variations are successfully copied into subsequent offspring.  If they are particularly advantageous to survival and reproduction these changes, or mutations, rapidly spread throughout the species, so that over tens of thousands of years, individuals successful in one environmental niche are so different from those successful in another that a new species has formed (followed by a new genus, family, order, and so on). 

This process of periodic differentiation has been likened to the branching of a tree but because of the activity of bacteria and viruses and residual DNA that may be reactivated as well as limited cross-species reproduction  (for example later Humans and Neanderthal) it is no longer believed to be quite that simple.

DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species. DNA changes over time in such away that each change is a development on previous generations. So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.  For example, DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells. This comes from both our parents. The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria. These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

Cells may contain from one mitochondrion to several thousand mitochondria depending on species and cell differentiation.  As a result this is the predominant DNA found in a cellular sample.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line.  This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'.

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X. So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic mutations in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.

As a result of this work we now know that humans on the planet are all descended from a single group that left Africa less than 70 thousand years ago. 

Recent DNA analysis shows that early humans sometimes interbred with the Neanderthal; a separate hominid subspecies that left Africa much earlier and settled in the Middle East and Europe over quarter of a million years ago.

It's amazing to think that we have only understood it within my lifetime. Now the ancient view that people grow from a seed, provided by their father, and gain the spark of life at 'conception' from a god is totally debunked. So throw away all those ancient texts.

 


Viruses

Viruses have been around since life began but they are 'of life', they are not technically 'alive' because they cannot themselves reproduce. They are extremely small - about 70 microns in diametre - and until the invention of electron microscopes in the 1930's their existance had only been inferred. 

To create copies of themselves they need a host cell with the necessary reproductive mechanisms. Over the millennia viruses have evolved the necessary mechanisms to penetrate cells, much like spermatozoa, and inject their DNA or RNA and capture the host's replication mechanisms so that the infected cell begins manufacturing thousands of virion (virus particle) clones of the invader. These then capture other nearby cells in the host animal or plant; or in similar bacteria.  Huge numbers of infected cells are usually destroyed in the process, sometimes killing the plant or animal.

 

Coronavirus particles (yellow) on the surface of a dying cell (that produced them)
Niaid/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library (from 
https://www.newscientist.com)

 

But animals plants and bacteria have become familiar with this threat and have in turn evolved means of dealing with or living with viruses to the extent that some are exploited for the benefit of the host.

In turn viruses evolve new strategies to perpetuate their reproduction. Thus new viruses arise from time to time, sometimes jumping from one species to another when an opportunity arises.

Many animals, including humans, have an immune system that has a memory of harmful viruses and means of neutralising them. Thus, once the animal has been infected and survived, the chances of reinfection are reduced.  Vaccines work by presenting our immune system with a harmless sample that allows it to recognise a particular harmful virus.

Since I first wrote this article the World has suffered a new viral pandemic.  It is a novel corona virus for which we have no established immunity and there is no vaccine.  At the end of June 2020 the Covi-19 virus has already killed half a million people.

It is estimated that this virus will no longer find sufficient vulnerable hosts to spread further after infecting around 70% of the populations in which it is spreading.  It has a case fatality rate of just under 1%, that is, of those who catch it just under one in a hundred die.  

Quarantine restrictions are in place in many countries to protect relatively uninfected areas, with local measures to eliminate 'hot spots'.  But the majority of the world's population, in excess of five billion, are in countries in which it is presently spreading.

Unless a vaccine is available soon it seems inevitable that many millions more will be killed.  The economic consequences are also dire.

 

 

 

 


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